Monday, August 21, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Remembering Diana 20 Years Later

Diana and Liz Tilberis exit the the stage at the 14th annual CFDA Awards, January 31, 1995.
by Liz Smith

Diana — Still The People's Princess. Still The Queen of Hearts. 20 Years has not dimmed our Love and Loss.

"THE DEATH of a beautiful woman is unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world," said Edgar Allan Poe.
THINKING on that quote, one cannot help being reminded of Diana Spencer, once the Princess of Wales.

Thursday, August 31st will mark the 20th anniversary of her horrible death.  We could have waited a week for the day itself, to honor and morn her. But matters in the world, in this country, have depressed us to the point we simply could not muster the energy to exercise today our minor “talent to amuse” as Noel Coward wrote.

Diana and her enormous blue eyes on the night we met in 1995.
It is still difficult to comprehend her loss. She was so vivid and challenging; hard and soft, very right and sometimes utterly wrong — achingly human in her search for happiness.

I met Princess Diana just once. She had come to America to present an award to Liz Tilberis of Harper's Bazaar.

Determined not to be impressed with "royalty" making a frivolous appearance for fashion, I was, nevertheless, impressed! I melted under her smile and intense gaze, wowed by her charm up close. Her charisma — and those justifiably famous, enormous blue eyes — was genuine and overpowering. She and Liz Tilberis are forever melded in my memory of that night, both of them iconic and gone from us too soon.

A week after Diana's death, I went to London for reasons that are still unclear to me. In an increasingly secular world I think I wanted to mourn en masse with all those people leaving their carpets of flowers in front of palaces. Had the world substituted its shock and grief over this lovely young woman who had died so suddenly and horribly for the religions we had perhaps once believed in and lost?

Anyone who was there on the scene at Buckingham and Kensington Palace could never forget having been a part of a "group grieving." It was impressive, sad and perhaps pointless. But we couldn't resist being a part of it.

DIANA, the fairytale princess turned royal rebel, charity goddess and (in her final summer) international playgirl, had been a part of my professional life for 15 years. She had occupied as much space in my column as the other supernovas of that era — Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Jackie Onassis. And in many ways, she was the more compelling figure, evolving in a most surprising manner. She was poignant, attractive, disturbing. There were her stunning admissions (and accusations) of infidelity, eating disorders, cooperating with biographers but denying it, running away from and towards the paparazzi.
The Big Four — Jackie, Liz, Madonna, Diana.
Like the heroine of "Lady In The Dark," Diana just "couldn't make up her mind" — except that she felt she'd been deceived by Charles and done wrong. She rode roughshod over the monarchy with an air of "I'm just folks" victimization. (But she did want her sons — at least one of them — to become King.)
Diana's BBC interview with reporter Martin Bashir in which she candidly discussed her marriage to Prince Charles and its collapse still stands as one of the most brilliant public relations outings ever — every sentence a complete, thought-out sound bite! Her head-down, eyes-up, brave-deer-in-the-headlights posture won the day, even as she admitted her adultery with cavalry officer James Hewitt. (She wore hauntingly enhanced eye-makeup, giving her a poignant Keane painting aspect. So clever!)
Because she was a "princess" and expected, even by Americans, to behave a certain way, her seemingly spontaneous acting out was more fascinating than a movie star's serial marrying (Taylor) ... a pop queen pushing the world to "sexual healing" (Madonna) ... or the widow of a U.S. president marrying a Greek shipping magnate.

Aside from the shock I felt when word reached me of Diana's death in that Paris tunnel, I selfishly thought of how much news had been lost! "There goes thirty more years worth of columns!"
TYPICALLY, Diana's image at the time of her death was a delicate balancing act between her position as a self-appointed "people's Princess" and her life as a beautiful young woman, addicted to attention. She had made news campaigning against landmines in Third World countries and meeting with Mother Teresa. This followed her efforts on behalf of AIDS awareness and education. (She never flinched from touching the ill and dying.)
Yet, she had also appeared on front pages everywhere with her fling of the season, super-rich Dodi Fayed, lounging in the sun, diving off his yacht, kissing him, decked out in a tiger-striped bathing suit fit for a glamour girl. At the very moment news of that car crash in Paris was reaching British newspapers, unflattering comments she had made about the royal family were being angrily dissected in England's tabloids.
Death stilled criticism, at least temporarily. To say the world reeled in disbelief would be classic understatement. There was the comparison to Marilyn Monroe — bo21th blonde, beautiful, the same age, dying in the same hot month of August. (Elton John even re-worked his famous "Goodbye, Norma Jean" for Diana's funeral.)

But Monroe had prepared the world. Her fragility as a person and as a movie queen fighting to hold onto her position had been writ large. There was shock, but also a tragic inevitability to Monroe's demise. Diana's departure took us by surprise.

Nobody was prepared for Diana to leave the stage. And certainly not in such a terrible fashion. (Elizabeth Taylor, head freshly shorn from brain surgery, appeared without makeup, weeping brokenly on "60 Minutes." She damned the paparazzi who pursued the princess.)
In the year before her death, Diana seemed more vigorous, more attractive, more commanding a figure than ever before; less a victim, more a person in control.
Diana was an on-going sensation who would have grown only more interesting as her boys turned into men, as she possibly married again, divorced, took lovers, dealt with aging — perhaps she would have gone into politics, or moved to Manhattan and joined the arts and charities circuit? (I figure as her two boys grew up, she would have made herself even more noisy on the strictures of royal life.)

Still, it was difficult then to gauge how securely Diana's "legend" would stand the test of time? Although she had the stellar position of an actress, she wasn't one. Revival houses would not play her films; Turner Classic movies would not salute her.

Well, we are 20 years later and Diana has survived, though she might disapprove of how her image is sometimes disseminated. Mohamed Al-Fayed, the father of Dodi, who died with her, has persisted in the outspoken belief that his son and "future daughter-in-law" were assassinated by members of the British government, perhaps on orders from the royal family itself. The investigative furor, a conspiracy theorist's dream, persists. (Much as the Monroe conspiracies continue to flourish. Sigh! Sometimes an overdose is just an overdose, a drunken chauffeur just a drunken chauffeur.)

But it is more than scandal that welds Diana's memory to the public. She had guts, was brave in the face of adversity, thumbed her nose at England's royals — she was almost all-American in her distaste for the crushing etiquette of Britain's monarchy. Americans in particular loved her rebellious nature. (In Britain she was often thought of as "mad" in the sense of being unbalanced.) Diana lifted us up. We even daydreamed of her fleeing England altogether, arriving on our shores — in couture, of course — declaring her independence from British rule. Her power to shape such fantasies is as true now as it was during her lifetime. She would have been beheaded or confined to a convent in earlier days. But in her Versace cocktail dresses and stiletto heels she was untouchable.

The truly ironic twist to Diana’s legend? — the revisionist look at her implacable ex mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears’ 2006 movie “The Queen.”

This is a fictional take on Elizabeth II and England in the days following Diana’s death.  It shows the monarch yielding under great public pressure to “honor” Diana.  And thanks to the brilliant acting of Helen Mirren and the skillful screenplay, the queen — who in real life soured quickly on the over-emotional princess — was presented as flesh and blood, dignified, duty-bound, but with a heart beating beneath her crown and scepter. It is interesting to speculate on how Diana, who had felt herself abandoned and betrayed by every member of the royal family, would have reacted to a sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth?  (And what would she have thought of the lauded Netflix series “The Crown?” one wonders.)
Diana's most bittersweet after-life incarnation is the place she holds in the hearts of her sons, William and Harry. And she will be resurrected again and again at every stage of their lives. What would Diana do, say, think at each moment; the marriages, the grandchildren she will never see, the almost impossible burden of a royal life which will find its full flowering when William becomes King of England. And how well she might have advised the future wives of her sons! We can imagine her as a power behind the throne, the world's most glamorous mother-in-law. (We can also imagine her saying to William's wife, Kate Middleton, "Darling, thank God the fashions of the 80s are over! I almost passed out dragging that damn dress of mine into the church!')
Diana was basically an ordinary young woman thrust into an extraordinary circumstance. She became extraordinary through pain and experience. She grew from an angry, disillusioned princess scorned to a powerful woman who would never be quite as regal or controlled or as obedient as had been expected of her. Yet she had already out-maneuvered the palace martinets who had said to her, in effect: "You're blonde, you're beautiful, you're a princess — what more can you ask for?"

They never understood her answer, which was clear in every action and word: She wanted true love and a real Prince Charming.

Contact Liz Smith here.